In 1994, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa went from Kathmandu to Nangchen in East Tibet, to meet her aunt Parchen, as well as her cousins. Her aunt had recently been freed after being imprisoned for 20 years. Her husband had been a part of the resistance movement against the Chinese. He was killed and Parchen was jailed, for being his wife.
And very often, they would do physical labour. One day, the authorities made the prisoners dig a part of a hillside. As Parchen was doing so, she saw several dogs running around. And she thought, ‘‘How lucky the dogs were.’’
“It was a moving moment for me,” says Tsering, the first female Tibetan poet writing in English. “Parchen did not feel bitter. She would laugh and sometimes cry when she recounted her experiences.”
Later, when Tsering went to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, she was taken aback by the presence of a large number of policemen and the near-total surveillance. “That feeling of always being watched is a terrifying experience,” she says.
In Lhasa, today, the Chinese outnumber the Tibetans. The younger Tibetans have no option, but to study at Chinese universities. “Unfortunately, they feel marginalised, because they are not treated as equals,” says Tsering, whose parents fled to India in 1959. “But such experiences have helped them to develop a sense of identity.”
Later, Tsering made three more trips to Tibet, the last being in 2009. Her sojourns laid the seeds for her well-received non-fiction book, A Home in Tibet (2013). “While growing up, I read books on Tibet, but they were by Westerners,” she says. “I wanted to read a book by a Tibetan who lived outside, but could also be on the inside. So I thought I would write such a book targeted towards young Tibetans in exile.”
Here is an extract which reflects the pain of exile: ‘‘The flowers in Tibet were always taller, more fragrant and vivid. My mother’s descriptions, imprecise but unchanging, from year to year, had led me to an inevitable acceptance that her past was unequalled by our present lives. She would tell me of the knee-deep fields of purple, red and white, that over time served to create an idea of her fatherland, as a riotous garden. ’’
Tsering had recently come to Kochi, at the invitation of the Kochi chapter of Friends of Tibet, to interact with literature students at the St. Albert’s and Union Christian colleges. She read a few of her poems, and gave them an idea of life in Tibet. “The students asked many questions, because it was so far outside their experience,” she says.
One experience which all of them did not have is to live without a country. “To be stateless is painful,” says Tsering. “Initially, when I wanted to travel to the US, I had to apply for an identity certificate.” This is not a passport, but is recognised internationally. However, an explanation has to be given to every immigration officer about it. In India, Tsering had a refugee card which is issued by the Central government.
But Tsering has no problems living in India. “I was treated very well,” she says. “In my school [Wynberg Allen school at Mussoorie], and college [Lady Shri Ram at Delhi], I have never experienced any discrimination. But the sense of not being at home is an inner feeling. This happens, regardless of where you live.”
Today, Tsering is a naturalised US citizen and lives in San Francisco. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. And her subject is Tibetan nationalism and identity.
Tsering has published three books of poetry: Rules of the House, (a finalist for the 2003 Asian Literary Awards), My Rice Tastes Like the Lake, and In the Absent Everyday.
“In my poetry, I have always returned to the idea of place, memory and storytelling,” she says. “Stories help people, who are stateless, to experience a sense of place.”